1-2-3: The CFP Digest: How does information spread online and mess with you?

In this edition...1 question, 2 quotes, and 3 opinions on the not so good of how information spreads online today

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1 Question, 2 Quotes, 3 Opinions 

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1 Question

How does information spread online and mess with you?

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Jaron Lanier on social media:

“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward”

― Jaron Lanier, American computer philosophy writer, author, computer scientist, visual artist, and composer of contemporary classical music


Michelle Obama on social media:

When it comes to social media, there are just times I turn off the world, you know. There are just some times you have to give yourself space to be quiet, which means you've got to set those phones down.

— Michelle Obama, American attorney, author, and former first lady of the United States

3 Opinions


How does information spread to mess you up online?

By Flavian DeLima 

I had mixed feelings after watching the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlowski. On the one hand, a Netflix release during a global pandemic means more people see it. On the other hand, when interest dies down, will things go back to normal if lawmakers do nothing and tech giants blanket us with marketing campaigns? I’m encouraged because #StopHateForProfit is trending and companies and celebrities are freezing their Facebook and Instagram accounts at least for a day.

Photo by StopHateForProfit

Two people interviewed in the film were particularly pessimistic about the future. Tim Kendall, former director of monetization (meaning how the company generates revenue) at Facebook and current president of Pinterest, described the future in two words:

“Civil War”

Janier Lanier's prediction is direr. He's a Microsoft researcher, computer scientist, and author of "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now". Besides Jaron’s many accomplishments, he’s also a father. It sounds like he’s truly worried about the world his son will grow up in.

On social media platforms, Jaron says,

"We probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance, we probably fail to meet the challenge of climate change. ... We probably degrade the world’s democracies, so that they fall into some sort of bizarre autocratic dysfunction. We probably ruin the global economy, we probably don’t survive. You know, I really do view it as existential.”

Both recommend you quit using social platforms because the profit motive ensures people's behavior will continue to be manipulated by advertisers. Clear evidence exists that free social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc, divide and make people depressed because they ultimately serve advertisers, not us. They also have positives - the reason they got popular in the first place.

The Social Media Algorithms

Algorithms are designed for one purpose. To keep your attention and prevent it from wandering elsewhere on the Internet or offline. The more time you spend on them, the smarter the algorithms get in predicting and showing you more of what you think you want.

It's strange to think that thousands of engineers run experiments on your behavior to get you to use apps longer and then manipulate you. The more you use them, the more they’re able to collect attributes about you and to influence your behavior.

How micro-targeting ads work

Each time you use free services like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google Search, Facebook, they learn more about you. Their business model is to sell commercial and political advertisers the ability to send you micro-targeted ads and messaging based on your specific interests. Political campaigns rely on micro-targeting. It is defined as the process of slicing up the voters into many distinct niches, appealing, and trying to influence their behavior with highly customized digital messages.

In The Atlantic, McKay Coppins gives the example of an ad that calls for de-funding Planned Parenthood. On Facebook, such an ad can be targeted and would likely get the desired reaction from 800 Roman Catholic women in a swing state like Dubuque, Iowa. An ad the Trump campaign used successfully to suppress the black vote in Florida in 2016 was a South-Park-style cartoon animation that read,  

"Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators." 

According to the Trump campaign:

"The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—non public posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that only the people we want to see it, see it. We know because we’ve modeled this. It will dramatically affect her [Hillary Clinton’s] ability to turn these people out.”

The best digital ad campaign ever

In a leaked internal memo written by a longtime Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, in 2016 wrote about Trump's win:

“He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”

In the six months prior to the 2016 US election,"Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000."

As sweet as sugar

Related to the health effects of Facebook, Bosworth compared Facebook to sugar and believed that users should know better and be responsible for their own intake and moderation. Incidentally, it’s helpful to observe that besides the computer industry, the only other industry that calls customers users is the drug industry.

“If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position...My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.”

On growing Facebook, Bosworth wrote an internal memo titled, The Ugly, that was reprinted in BuzzFeed News. The following is a short excerpt.

“We connect people.

That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide.

So we connect more people

That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

I’m not sure which side of history Facebook will end up. I do know from talking to a few employees that it’s a lot more stressful to work there today than it was a decade ago.


10 tips to take back control of social media

By Flavian DeLima

The Social Dilemma documentary film offered useful tips to reduce the control social media has on you. Unfortunately, unless elected representatives take ongoing action, you will need to take action yourself.

  1. Recognize there is a problem.

  2. Put public pressure on governments to take control and find solutions

  3. Uninstall apps you don't use

  4. Turn off your phone notifications

  5. Use web browsers that don't store your search history like Qwant or DuckDuckGo. Browsers like Chrome store your history and track you.

  6. Ignore recommendations and chose your own content on platforms like YouTube. You can also install browser extensions to remove recommendations.

  7. Verify news sources by spending more time doing your own research.

  8. Avoid clicking on Clickbait or false ads. They are financially rewarded each time you click.

  9. Keep children and teenagers away from social media. Most technology executives at Silicon Valley companies do not allow their children to use social media and smartphones.

  10. Follow people with different opinions than yourself. While difficult, it will reduce your confirmation bias and propensity to have conversations in echo chambers with people like you.


How to spot fake news

By Flavian DeLima

In 2017, Columbia law professor, Tim Wu, wrote an article titled “Is the First Amendment Obsolete? I agree with his view that we live in a hyper expressive environment characterized by information abundance. He writes:

"It is no longer speech itself that is scarce, but the attention of listeners...Cheap speech will mean that far more speakers—rich and poor, popular and not, banal and avant garde—will be able to make their work available to all."

Tim says "good" speech tends to illuminate, inform, and facilitate healthy debate while "bad" speech discredits, harasses, and manipulates people, and public debate.

Which type of speech gets attention online?

In a study published by Science Magazine, MIT data scientists wanted to detect and characterize the spread of misinformation on social media. They studied 12 years of Twitter data from 2006 to 2016 totaling 126,000 news items that were shared 4.5 million times by 3 million people. They discovered that:

“Fake stories spread six times faster than real ones.”

Also, people, not bots were to blame for spreading misinformation on social networks. They also found fake tweets had a "novelty and emotional charge" that generated more retweets than truthful ones.

Fake vs real news

Journalists are trained and more adept at spotting fake news. They are naturally skeptical, curious, and ask the right questions in pursuit of the truth. With pratice, their skills at uncovering misleading and contradictory statements improve.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote a book about how to spot the truth. It's called Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload.

The authors believe you need a healthy amount of skepticism coupled with an ability to know how to answer these 6 questions.

6 questions to help spot fake news

  1. What kind of content am I encountering?

  2. Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?

  3. Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?

  4. What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?

  5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?

  6. Am I learning what I need to?

They identify 4 news models, which you need to recognize.

  1. Journalism of Verification (Traditional model) - news that puts the highest value on accuracy and context.

  2. Journalism of Assertion (Newer model) - news that puts the highest value on immediacy and volume.

  3. Journalism of Affirmation (New political media) - news that that builds loyalty less on accuracy, completeness, or verification. Instead, it affirms the beliefs of its audiences, and cherry-picks information that serves that purpose.

  4. Interest-group Journalism - targeted Web sites or investigative news pieces that are funded by special interests rather than media institutions and designed to look like news.

It helps to remember that if something is too good or bad to be true, it probably is.

Fighting Post-Truth

I heard a lecture by Lee McIntyre for this 2018 book, Post-Truth. When asked about how to fight post-truth, he said he wanted to spend more time speaking to audiences in southern US states to fight his own biases. In his book, he writes:

“Whether we are liberals or conservatives, we are all prone to the sorts of cognitive biases that can lead to post-truth. One should not assume that post-truth arises only from others, or that its results are somebody else’s problem. It is easy to identify a truth that someone else does not want to see. But how many of us are prepared to do this with our own beliefs? ”

A glossary of terms from the book, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre

Alternative facts

Information that is provided to challenge the narrative created by facts that are hostile to one’s preferred beliefs.

Backfire effect

The psychological phenomenon where the presentation of true information that conflicts with someone’s mistaken beliefs causes them to hold those beliefs even more strongly

Confirmation bias

The tendency to give more weight to information that confirms one of our preexisting beliefs.

Dunning–Kruger effect

The psychological phenomenon wherein our lack of ability causes us to vastly overestimate our actual skill.

Fake news

Disinformation that is deliberately created to look like actual news in order to have a political effect.

False equivalence

To suggest that there is equal value between two points of view, when it is obvious that one is much closer to the truth. Often used to avoid accusations of partisan bias.

Information silo

The tendency to seek information from sources that reinforce our beliefs and cut off sources that do not.

Motivated reasoning

The tendency to seek out information that supports what we want to believe.


Any of a set of beliefs associated with a movement in art, architecture, music, and literature that tend to discount the idea of objective truth and a politically neutral frame of evaluation.


The contention that feelings are more accurate than facts, for the purpose of the political subordination of reality.


— Flavian TwitterInstagram, LinkedIn

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